Leading a Public University

Above, speaking to students at Randall High School. 

I will resume the reflections on university research next week.

University leaders are required to make bold and innovative decisions. Never has innovation in higher education been needed more. However, ideas are divisive, and innovative ideas are even more so.

Regional higher education is fighting for its life. Population decrease, rising costs, public skepticism, living wage, and the pandemic are challenging the survival of higher education.

The faculty at WT recently took a vote of no confidence in my leadership. I did not respond during the process to avoid interfering with their right to judge my presidency. However, the public deserves to hear from me as the president of THE Panhandle’s University.

Shortly after my arrival at WT, I led the work of crafting a long-range plan for the University. More than 350 faculty, staff, alumni, community leaders, and elected officials examined the potential and weaknesses of WT. Their work led to the plan known as WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World. Oversimplifying, the plan boldly embraces regionalism as a defining characteristic of WT and makes the University responsible for addressing the issues and needs of students, families, and communities. WT proudly serves as a regional research university with an aspiration to be the leader in rural issues.

The long-range plan is the foundation for my leadership decisions.

I have visited every high school in Region 16 twice and Region 17 once. I shared with the students what I called “The Plan for One,” encouraging them to make a plan for their lives and become engaged and productive citizens. Through noble pursuits such as running a family business, joining the military, learning a trade, or attending college, this is a practical plan for all students.

I cautioned those attending college to not go into excessive debt. I said, “IF you have to borrow money for the first two years to come to WT, THEN consider community college. Work and pay for school without borrowing, THEN transfer to WT.

I encouraged them not to borrow more than 60% of the annual starting salary to obtain their degrees. I cautioned them to stay in contact with WT while attending community college to ensure their courses would transfer toward their major. I changed my messaging a year ago, however, when I learned the average community college transfer was borrowing over $10,000. Borrowing to attend community college defeats the purpose. I now tell students that if they are going to borrow, begin at WT because it is a better value.

Since my high school visits, WT has enrolled some of its largest freshman classes. Students and families want a university that is honest, transparent, and advocates for their interests. Compared to last year, fall enrollment applications are up 12%, admitted students are up 7%, transfer orientation registrations are up 26%, new student orientation registrations are up 3%, and residential hall occupancy is up 10%.

I have encouraged faculty to find ways to make WT affordable. I suggested that faculty consider a textbook-free campus to save costs for students.

The recent “Beat Any Offer” campaign shows prospective students that WT is a great value. Early results show that 42 freshman prospects submitted offers from other universities. In 32 cases, WT was a better deal, and WT sweetened the offer for the 10 freshman prospects with better offers.

My office has sent nearly 50,000 individual letters to students across the Panhandle and South Plains, congratulating them on achievements recognized in local media.

Critiques have accused me of “shaming and hurting” West Texas A&M University. Since my arrival at WT: (1) State funding for new and renovated buildings has never been higher; (2) TAMU System support in dollars invested in partnerships like VERO, TVMDL, and AgriLife on campus is unprecedented; and (3) Community support through the One West fundraising campaign is historic for WT and the Panhandle.

I am transparent about who I am and what shapes my thinking and values. Unapologetically, I am a Christian. I tell people so they know and understand that I, like them, am influenced by many things. I have been transparent in the almost one million words I have written in op-eds since 2007. Everyone will not agree with my ideas, nor should they. This is how academic institutions should work—the free exchange of ideas and thought.

As president, I expect every office on campus to be a safe place for members of the WT community regardless of the type of diversity they represent. We are all more alike than we are different. Unfortunately, though, some feel treated unfairly if one disagrees with them. A university should be a breeding ground for innovative ideas and a model for disagreeing yet remaining in community.

Intellectual integrity on a university campus should be able to tolerate diversity of all kinds, including diversity in thinking. I expect WT to be an educational environment where students whose ideas differ from others, including faculty, are constructively discussed and debated.

As president of WT, I understand and accept that with every decision comes criticism. That is an expectation of the work. I choose to make strong decisions with the intention of strengthening and growing West Texas A&M University. Not all ideas work. But I plan to continue finding innovative ways for WT to boldly fulfill its educational mission.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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